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China’s lakes flushed away by human hands

PETER Hu still remembers the first time he saw the beautiful Naiman West Lake in north China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region 25 years ago. Surrounded by sand dunes rising one after another, “it was an oasis with birds flying on the rippling deep blue lake.”

“We caught carp and shrimps and cooked them immediately at a local herder’s home. The fresh flavor was heavenly,” recalls the 40-something Shanghai native, who is an enthusiast of travel and photography.

Today though, the lake is only a memory. In 2001, it dried up.

“A few years ago, I went back to the lake,” Hu tells Shanghai Daily. “There was only desiccated soil, wind and dust.”

Naiman West Lake is one of many vanishing bodies of water in the northern region.

In just under three decades, local natural lakes dwindled by 30 percent in area terms, mainly as a result of human activity, according to a recent field study.

The study, led by Peking University ecology professor Fang Jingyuan and published in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, drew from remote sensing data and field surveys to conclude that the region’s total lake area had shrunk from 4,160 square kilometers in 1987 to 2,901 square kilometers in 2010.

Sizable lakes like Naiman West Lake — once 10 times the size of Shanghai’s Century Park — were not immune to the drying trend. Fang and his team found that the number of lakes covering at least 1 square kilometer had plummeted from 427 in 1987 to 282 in 2010.

“Since Inner Mongolia is in a middle temperate zone, most of its area is arid or semi-arid. This, combined with the influence of the geographic environment, makes the lakes especially vulnerable. The lakes are not deep and can easily dry up,” said Sun Biao, a research associate with Inner Mongolia Agricultural University who has been monitoring the local water system for some 10 years, in an earlier interview with local media in Inner Mongolia.

Findings from Sun, Fang and other researchers are a major source of concern among scientists and residents. Inner Mongolia’s lakes are not only vital to local economic life, they are also crucial to Chinese efforts to halt the spread of desertification in the area.

The speed and scale of the water retreat also has many worried about the region’s future.

Sun says he has been particularly taken aback by changes at Hulun Lake, one of the largest lakes in China and a major area of aquatic food production.

Prior to 2000, Hulun Lake covered an area of about 2,000 square kilometers. Measurements taken in 2011 though showed the lake had shrunk by roughly 17 percent to around 1,750 square kilometers.

“Over the short term, the expansion and contraction of the lakes are the combined result of climate change and human activity. Some lakes have been affected greatly because of the latter,” Sun reportedly told the Chinese newspaper Economic Information Daily.

Fang and his team found that the majority of Inner Mongolia’s natural lakes have shrunk due to irrigation projects and coal exploitation.

Of course, the northern region isn’t the only place in China that has seen its water resources disappear down the drain due to human intervention.

Central China’s Hubei Province, long known for its rich abundance of lakes, lost some 243 lakes of over 1 square kilometer each during a 30-year span, according to a report published on in 2012.

What’s more, the province reportedly had 1,066 lakes covering a total area of 66,667 square meters in the 1950s. Of this group only 574 lakes remained as of 2009, with many of the remainder sluiced away by agricultural land reclamation projects, rubbish dumping and property development.

Elsewhere, water resource authorities in Nanchang, capital city of east China’s Jiangxi Province, said on their official Weibo account last year that over half of 50 local lakes have either contracted or vanished since the 1980s.

All told, more than 200 lakes of over 10 square kilometers each have contracted in China over recent decades, and nearly 1,000 natural lakes have disappeared as a result of reclamation activities, according to statistics cited by Economic Information Daily.

In response to this worrying trend, authorities are rolling out new water management measures.

Officials in Inner Mongolia’s Hulunbuir City have established the Hulun Lake National Nature Reserve Administration Office to strengthen protection of the lake.

Such efforts have already yielded results. Last year, Hulun Lake swelled to 1,980 square kilometers and authorities are optimistic that this area can expand further over the years ahead.


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